Child-Tamers and Cash Cows

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 08 April 2005 04:02PM

With ITV's viewing levels on the slide, and multichannel rising inexorably, this summer's battle for audiences will be one of the fiercest yet. Spring is in the air, the season of rebirth is upon us - or at least that's what the nervous schedulers at ITV will be hoping after a shaky start to 2005, which has seen ratings at the channel slip by around 10 per cent against last year's figures.

ITV is blaming this on the absence this year of I'm a Celebrity ... and is hoping that the return of reliable old favourites such as Bad Girls and new reality fare such as Bad Dad's Army - a show that needs no explanation - will boost its fortunes.

Returning for new seasons on ITV are the Alan Davies vehicle The Brief and the frankly soporific The Last Detective, as well as a handful of drama series of varying quality, each of which gently tweaks the cliches and con-ventions of the TV cop show: Rose & Maloney, Murder City, Murder in Suburbia and Murder Investigation Team.

Also arriving with the inevitability that is traditionally the preserve of death and taxes, will be more people and places "from Hell" and more historical events "in Colour". The most promising documentary/reality offering would be the second run of Hell's Kitchen, if it weren't for the absence this time round of Gordon Ramsay - something that suggests there will be precious little point in tuning in at all.

Ramsay has been persuaded by Channel 4 to return for a second run of his hilarious Kitchen Nightmares, in which he will no doubt torture and humiliate another batch of hapless cooks. Although this is traditionally a quiet time of year, the Channel 4 spring/summer line-up is actually looking fairly promising, with the channel already in buoyant mood following the boost provided by Jamie Oliver and Desperate Housewives to the start of the year, which saw ratings rise 6 per cent.

The countdown has already begun to Channel 4's annual schedule-engulfing cash cow, the phenomenon that is Big Brother. The people at Endemol will surely not have failed to pick up on the lessons of the past two runs, which can be boiled down to the simple fact that viewers are less inclined to tune in to watch the daily misadventures of a bunch of dullards and no-marks (BB4) than they are for a group of drooling, dysfunctional egomaniacs (BB5).

There are a few intriguing offerings to keep viewers busy while they wait for BB6, not least a batch of top-notch feature documentaries - Super Size Me, Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans - as well as the urban animation of Bromwell High, yet another Jimmy Carr show (8 out of 10 Cats) and a new vehicle for the equally ubiquitous Johnny Vegas called Johnny Vegas: 18 Stone of Idiot, which comes courtesy of a revived Chris Evans and his production team.

One of the noticeable TV phenomena of recent times has been the child-taming show - clearly, there are a lot of commissioning editors out there with troublesome offspring - and this spring sees two new and apparently very similar examples.

On Channel 4, Warwick Dyer will be sorting out errant youngsters in much the same way as Derek Ogilvie will be doing with infants in the intriguing, if frankly sinister-sounding, The Baby Whisperer on five.

In recent years, five has at least tweaked, if not quite transformed its profile, by acquiring a handful of first-rate US cop shows and sitcoms.

But in truth, its factual output generally still aims at the lower end of the market, and notwithstanding the upturn in form of Donal McIntyre in his current series, that trend looks set to continue in the coming months.

Die-hard Spice-Girl fanatics may be excited by an update to the Ginger One's story in There's Something About Geri, but is there really any clamour for a second run of The Farm, the most resistible of all the high-profile reality shows? As if in a concerted effort to make the format even less appealing this time around, it is now to be presented by the tiresome decorating duo Colin and Justin from five's How Not to Decorate.

The first run of The Farm did pull off the feat of presenting the open-mouthed viewing public with what was by common consent the most repulsive sight on TV last year, a sequence in which Rebecca Loos was called upon to - very effectively, as it turned out - masturbate a pig.

Loos has recovered from this indignity and has managed to parlay a contested liaison with a football star into a media career, having been commissioned by Sky One to present a show on power lesbians, something that fits in with the general factual output of the channel.

Other upcoming highlights include films on Michael Jackson, English political scandals and the Joanne Lees "Murder in the Outback" case.

Like five, Sky One scores with its roster of slick US dramas, a line-up set to be enhanced in the coming months by Revelations, starring Bill Pullman, the latest piece of entertaining, mysticism-tinged hokum.

Over at BBC1, it seems that all promotional activities are focused squarely on the imminent week in which the channel will be all but given over to Africa. There will be special editions of BBC Breakfast, Question Time and even the last ever Ground Force, as well as a personal view from Bob Geldof and a specially commissioned drama from Richard "Comic Relief" Curtis.

The high point of this year's Comic Relief was surely Catherine Tate's encounter with the bemused boy band McFly, and among the upcoming treats on offer from BBC2 is the second series of her eponymous show.

At the serious end of the spectrum, the channel will be screening several heavyweight documentaries, including Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs, the enticing prospect of Soul Deep, a history of soul from the people who brought us Lost Highway and Walk On By, and the TV premiere of Errol Morris' outstanding feature-length interview with President Kennedy's defence secretary, Robert McNamara, called The Fog of War. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the peculiar prospect of Ask the Family, this time with Robert Robinson replaced by the children's favourites Dick and Dom.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies what looks set to be the televisual highlight of the coming months - the star-laden Extras, Ricky Gervais' feverishly anticipated follow-up to the peerless The Office.

Karl French is the TV reviewer for the Financial Times and the author of various books on film and popular culture, including This is Spinal Tap, The Official Companion.

FOUR PROGRAMMING CHIEFS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT. BY JEREMY LEE

NIGEL PICKARD - director of programmes, ITV

When David Liddiment left the ITV Network Centre, the broadcaster made no secret of its desire to hire the then chief executive of five, Dawn Airey, to replace him.

After a series of bungled attempts to lure her, which culminated in the company's two shareholders failing to agree on a contract, Airey went to Sky, and ITV ended up with the rather obscure but certainly more genial Nigel Pickard.

The response to his appointment was a little underwhelming - after all, ITV was just emerging from the shadow of the ITV Digital debacle and the Network Centre was crying out for a creative chief with a bit of charisma and star quality.

Pickard would be the first to admit that he has neither. Scruffy and sporting an unfashionable beard, he has the demeanour of a geography teacher, rather than a man with the second-most powerful job in British programming.

But Pickard comes with a good programming track record. His background is in children's TV - his first job was as a floor manager on Worzel Gummidge at Southern TV - and he was the head of children's programming at the Network Centre, where he hired Ant & Dec for SM:TV before leaving to fill a similar role at the BBC.

No-one can accuse Pickard of having been afraid to make brave decisions since he joined ITV. He instigated a clear-out of many of the stars, such as Davina McCall and Cilla Black, and signed up younger on-air talent such as Mark Durden-Smith, Cat Deeley and Mel Sykes.

It is a shame that so many of his early experiments with the schedule failed to work. The epic reality DIY series The Block flopped and was eventually consigned to a graveyard slot, while the naval drama Making Waves was dropped from the schedule completely.

However, since settling into his job, Pickard has returned ITV to doing what it does best - broadcasting high-quality drama and popular entertainment.

With Ofcom loosening its grip on ITV's public-service obligations and ITV launching a series of digital sister channels, Pickard will have a freer rein to deliver the sort of popular programmes that give ITV its USP.

KEVIN LYGO - director of televsion, Channel 4

Kevin Lygo is just one of the cabal of former five senior management whose personal stock rose in accordance with the channel's success.

As five's programme director, he steered the channel away from its original incarnation as the home of cheap US imports and tawdry skin flicks to something resembling a mainstream terrestrial channel.

But Channel 4 was always Lygo's natural home and he jumped ship from five just as its audience share peaked in 2003. The mercurial Lygo had previously been the controller of E4, and Channel 4's head of entertainment, where he was responsible for commissioning Smack The Pony and Trigger Happy TV.

As soon as he arrived at Channel 4, Lygo was forced to deal with the demise of Friends and Frasier, which had been cornerstones of the Friday night schedule. They were replaced by original programming, such as Nathan Barley and The Friday Night Project, which have met with a mixed response.

Despite this, Channel 4 continues to perform well, and the schedule has included controversial seasons on torture, the "Banned" series of programmes and the Peter Kosminsky drama about the death of Dr David Kelly.

The loss of Channel 4's rights to the cricket means its sports output is now negligible, but it has provided Lygo with an increased programme budget. He promises to continue making thought-provoking TV, claiming Channel 4 is at its best when it is "annoying some people, provoking everybody".

Lygo's importance at Channel 4 has grown since the appointment of Andy Duncan as the chief executive. For the first time in the channel's 23-year history, its chief executive does not have an editorial background, making Lygo the creative chief.

Given the scheduling lapse between the departure of one programming chief and the arrival of another, Lygo's full impact has yet to be felt. The autumn launch of the highbrow More4, which Lygo has described as "Channel 4 without the stupid bits", will be the real test of his programming skills.

DAN CHAMBERS - director of programmes, five

Dan Chambers can claim credit for making two pieces of TV history: as well as being the youngest-ever programme director, he was also responsible for one of the seminal TV moments of 2003: Rebecca Loos wanking off a boar on The Farm.

The scene resulted in widespread tabloid outrage and prompted 37 viewer complaints to Ofcom, all of which were rejected, but it certainly helped raise the profile of the channel.

Not all of his reality shows have proved to be such big ratings-grabbers - Back to Reality, which pitched contestants from previous reality shows against each other, proved to be an expensive flop.

Chambers is a self-confessed fan of the reality genre - during his time at Channel 4 he was the person who brought Big Brother to our screens.

But he also likes reminding people that he is a philosophy graduate from Oxford University and stresses that five is committed to the arts.

Indeed, Chambers has continued the work started by Kevin Lygo of moving five away from the "tits and arse" image originally espoused by Dawn Airey.

He has had some success with five's arts strand and future commissions include a philosophy series starring "the brainiest people in the world" and a specially composed poem by the poet laureate, Andrew Motion.

Chambers's big acquisition has been the Friends spin-off Joey, starring Matt le Blanc. Though audiences started strongly,they have begun to tail off and there is a question over whether the show represents value for money, given that it cost £500,000 per episode out of a total programming budget of £190 million.

Five has matured into a mainstream channel with a schedule designed to appeal to a broad audience. Its audience has already plateaued and could begin to drop, as multichannel viewing becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Therefore, the biggest challenge facing Chambers is the uncertainty over five's future. With still no sign of a multichannel strategy and question-marks over United Business Media's commitment to the channel, there are plenty of issues that need to be resolved if Chambers is to take five to the next stage in its development.

JAMES BAKER - controller, Sky One

When James Baker took over Sky One in October 2003, he became the latest in a succession of programmers charged with changing the perception of the channel to something other than just being the home of The Simpsons.

If he does manage to do this, he will have pulled off a feat that evaded even Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth.

Running Sky One is not one of the easiest or most secure jobs in TV.

Baker was parachuted in after the sudden departure of Sara Ramsden, whose shortlived reign proved ineffectual.

One of the problems he inherited was the lack of a clear and consistent strategy. Sky One launched as a general entertainment channel to drive Sky subscriptions but it no longer looks as unique as it once did, with ITV2 and BBC3 now occupying a similar space but on all TV platforms.

Realising this, Baker has tried to take Sky One more upmarket by dropping the formatted reality shows, such as The Villa and Ibiza Uncovered, and buying in classier US imports.

As Sky has begun to target an older audience, Sky One has followed suit - among Baker's most recent acquisitions are 24, which he poached from the BBC, Deadwood, Nip/Tuck and 9/11.

As well as buying top-notch US imports, Baker has made some interesting UK commissions, such as Julie Burchill's recent hour-long documentary exploring the chav phenomenon.

That said, Sky One still has its share of dross - the drama Mile High instantly springs to mind - but it is no longer dominated by shows with "sex" in the title.

Worryingly, Sky One continues to draw disappointing audience figures and its potency is limited by the fact that Freeview penetration is growing faster than that of Sky.

Ultimately, Baker is fighting a losing battle if his paymasters really think that Sky One can continue to drive sales of its satellite systems.

In the longer term, therefore, it seems inevitable that Sky One will eventually replace Sky Travel and end up on Freeview. This will give Baker an even bigger creative canvas from which to work ... if he's still there, that is.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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